He walks slightly hunched over, bent forward at the waist, perhaps not unexpected for a man of 87. Yet despite the obvious frailties of age, he still presents an imposing figure, tall and, though well past his playing days, displaying a naturally athletic frame.
His voice is strong, undiminished, projecting the authority that set him apart as a commanding leader in both his playing and coaching career. His mind — and, in particular, his wit — are still sharp, exhibiting a renowned dry sense of humor that continues to color his comments and retorts, charming his audience.
Bud Grant still draws a crowd. The featured speaker at a breakfast meeting of a business-networking club, there were more than 100 people in the room – unusually high attendance for the event. The club president introduced Grant, former coach of the National Football League (NFL) Minnesota Vikings. The coach rose from his seat and walked deliberately to the lectern.
The venue was a country club in Edina, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. A member of the club had invited me to attend as his guest. When he extended the invitation, he made a point of noting that Bud Grant would be speaking. That held little interest for me; in fact, I almost declined. A retired NFL coach? Please, not another event where a long-retired coach tells stories, spouts sporting clichés and fills the time with platitudes. “There’s no ‘I’ in team.” “It’s never over ‘til it’s over.” I thought: I’ve heard it all before.
But not wanting to appear rude or ungrateful, I accepted, thinking to myself, Why not, let’s network with some new people. As I learned, the event would have almost nothing to do with sports. What “Coach Bud” shared that morning was not only a surprise – it revealed a depth of feeling that I’d never before heard from a sports figure.
“I’m sure you all have things you want to know about pro football,” he told the crowd, many of them his contemporaries, an audience of rapt, almost entirely male football fans. “We’ll have plenty of time to get into that in the question-and-answer session.”
Instead, he said he wanted to talk about something else.
“I know a lot of fans look up to football players and other athletes as heroes,” he said. “But they’re not heroes. They’re only stars. There aren’t heroes in pro football. Let me tell you about some guys I knew who really were heroes.”
Grant talked about growing up in Superior, Wis., and having many friends whose families worked in mining, lumber and other area industries. In the fall of 1941, he entered high school. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December of that year, he was too young to enlist. Many of his friends were, like he, star athletes. As they had graduated or would soon finish high school, they were eligible to join up the military. Just 18 or 19 years old, but eager to serve the war effort.
One of them told Grant that he’d soon be leaving. “He told me he was joining the Marines,” Grant said. Like many other servicemen, he came home once on leave and told Grant that he would be shipping out to the South Pacific. “We talked a lot, and he asked me if I would write to him. Yeah, in those days, guys wrote to other guys.”
Grant and the young Marine kept up a correspondence. “Then came word that he’d been in a battle in — now, what was the name of that island again?” Grant paused, struggling briefly, trying to remember the name.
“Oh yeah, Tarawa,” he said, and in the hushed room there were nods and murmurs of men who knew full well what that hell meant for young American soldiers. “He didn’t make it.”
Grant then told stories about others who left Superior to serve:
- The gunner on a “Flying Fortress” who flew many bombing missions over Germany. Not long before the eventual end of the war, the plane was shot down, the entire crew lost.
- The sailor who served on a submarine. “I just couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be in a submarine,” Grant recalled. Eventually, he would encounter in an engagement with Japanese ships, who sank the sub. “My friend and his fellow sailors are at the bottom of the ocean, not far from Japan.”
- And the airman who, after many successful sorties, participated in one more mission: the test-flight of a newly developed jet airplane.
“He’d already flown many missions,,” Grant said, his voice beginning to crack, his tone almost plaintive. “His service was completed. He could have just come home. But, instead, he volunteered, because he decided it was his duty.
“But during the flight the plane exploded, and he was lost,” Grant said, his eyes welling with tears, stopping to pause amid the silence of the room.
Grant would go on to join the service in 1945, as the war was ending, but serving his country nonetheless. Returning from the army, he would star in both basketball and football at the University of Minnesota, and later coaching – as head coach, first, in Canada, then later in the NFL.
Following his talk, Grant took questions from the floor – all of them about football. I don’t remember any of them.
It’s said that as we grow old and enter our “twilight” years, we gain a true appreciation for what’s truly important in life. That morning, it was clear that Bud Grant had gained that appreciation many years before.
“Athletes are only stars: they’re not heroes,” he repeated. “Those young men I knew many years ago in Superior, Wisconsin – those were the real heroes.”
Depending on how you look at it, “Big Data” is either a blessing or a curse. Some organizations see it as a daunting challenge to their ability to analyze and understand it. Others see it as key to new insights, cures, solutions and advances.
But that’s the crux of Big Data, isn’t it? No, not whether you view it negatively or positively, but literally how you look at it. Big Data is meaningless unless it can be analyzed and interpreted. For management to do that, they need to be able to easily interpret it and draw conclusions from it.
The key to being able to do that is data visualization, and data visualization is becoming ever more crucial in enabling senior managers in many fields – including finance, online engagement, climate, energy, manufacturing and agriculture – to evaluate Big Data without special technological expertise or assistance.
In a TDWI Research report last fall, David Stodder called data visualization “one of the great innovations of our time.” “Quantitative communication through graphical representation of data and analytical concepts is essential to surviving amid the deluge of data flowing through our world,” he wrote. He added that data visualization sits at the confluence of such factors as technology, the study of human perception and graphical interfaces, and “can contribute significantly to the fruitful interpretation and sharing of insights.”
As David Brooks wrote in the February 4 New York Times, “Technology has rewarded graphic artists who visualize data.”
Perhaps the most important developments in data visualization today are the strides being made in making it easily understood and interpreted by a lay audience – in other words, not requiring technical expertise or an analytical background to interpret and understand.
“The best visualizations cause you to see something you weren’t expecting, and allow you to act on it,” commented Amanda Cox, the Times graphics editor, in the Harvard Business Review last March. In their innovative use of graphic, statistical and analytical tools, Cox and her colleagues have made the Times a leader in data visualization.
That work, she said, has provided her team with this insight: “When I first started, I thought design was ten minutes to ‘make it [the technical analysis] cute’ at the end that I could talk someone into doing for me. Now I know that design thinking needs to be involved from conception.”
Likewise, by Jim Strikeleather, executive strategist, Innovation for Dell Services, emphasized the importance of the end-user in a Harvard Business Review blog post last April. Data visualization, he said, must be developed with an understanding of the audience; it must set up a clear framework; and it must tell a story.
Many examples of data visualization are available at the federal website www.data.gov. To view an especially effective example – providing a dynamic look at climate data and trends – view the visuals available at http://www.nnvl.noaa.gov/view.
This post originally appeared in CapsuleScape, the blog of Capsule Design in Minneapolis.
Suggest to an owner of a small or mid-sized business that he or she can use public relations as a strategy to support business growth, and the businessperson is likely to demur. “What do I know about getting covered by the news media?” or the owner might say: “I don’t have a clue about how to use social media like Facebook for my business.”
The responses are common, but they often reflect many missed opportunities. That’s because they reflect knowledge only of public relations tactics – certainly, tactics that can be effective tools in a building a reputation for businesses or organizations. But that’s the point: they’re just tools. Understanding how public relations can help your enterprise means, first, understanding how public relations is a matter of perspective.
The beginning of a significant new field
Let’s start at the beginning. In my first post on this blog, I referred to Edward Bernays, who was
listed by Life magazine among the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. How was he influential? It started with his relatives.
Bernays was a double nephew of Sigmund Freud. His mother was Freud’s older sister, Anna, and Bernays’ father was the brother of Freud’s wife. Bernays, in fact, was born in Vienna, although his family moved to New York in 1892, when he was just a year old.
After graduating from Yale in 1912, and unsure about what he would do with his life, Bernays traveled to Vienna to spend a few months with “Uncle Siggy.” He gained a firsthand understanding of the work of his uncle, and the principles of the emerging field of psychology. He was confident that the principles of psychology could be applied to many different fields – government, politics, even business.
As World War I approached, Bernays joined others in government in propaganda work to raise support for the United States entry into the war.
After the war, Bernays embarked on his own consulting practice. Since the field was entering – creating, in fact — didn’t have a name, he invented one. In his 1923 book, Crystallizing Public Opinion, he coined the term “public relations.” In the years that followed, he advised many famous public figures, including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and a succession of U.S. presidents.
Creating a new opportunity
What is the lesson for today’s business owners? I believe it’s epitomized in one account of how Bernays put his principles into practice. It came near the close of World War II. Although the war had not yet concluded, Americans were beginning to look forward to the day when U.S. soldiers would return home.
Representatives of one of Bernays’ clients, a national booksellers’ association, came to him and said, “Mr. Bernays, soon, millions of Americans will be coming home from the war. We want them to buy books. Is there a way, they asked, that you can help us?” Bernays told them that he would think about it.
Bernays knew that, with so many soldiers returning to the United States, they would be starting families and, eventually, looking for homes. So, with the booksellers in mind, he approached an association of homebuilders. He talked with them about an anticipated increase in home building, and discussed possible ideas they could make new homes attractive to potential buyers. And one of his suggestions for making home interiors attractive to young families, with a touch of sophistication, was to include built-in bookshelves.
The feature did prove attractive to new homebuyers, and once they purchased their homes, they filled those shelves with lots of new books.
The lesson for business owners isn’t hard to see. In fact, many small businesses and entrepreneurs already follow Bernays’ thinking.
Right in your neighborhood
There’s a small hardware store in my neighborhood where the owner hires students from a nearby private high school to help out in the afternoons, after school. He focuses solely on those students in seeking part-time help for the store. The students greet every customer who comes into the store, asking what the customer is looking for and helping to find the product. The store’s owner doesn’t publicize or advertise this, and he’s been doing it for years.
Other than paying the students for their part-time work, he doesn’t spend a dime – but you can be sure that the parents of those students are not only grateful for the jobs, but if they ever need something from the hardware store they know the first place they’ll stop.
Here’s another example: A local dentist who practices in my area takes a couple of weeks annually to volunteer his services at a mission in Latin America. He provides much-needed dental care to very poor children. Until his first visit, many had never seen a dentist.
When he returns home, he posts pictures of his latest mission trip in his lobby. The display isn’t intrusive, nor does it ask for any donations for the mission. It just offers some information on his volunteer work. Yet patients cannot help but see the photos, and are likely to conclude – and tell their friends – that he’s a caring, committed professional who serves his community, both locally and globally.
The next, final example has not been utilized, but only proposed. But again I believe it illustrates the type of thinking involved in understanding and utilizing public relations.
A few months ago I met a young inventor. He had a pet dog; when a new roommate came to live with him, however, they found that the roommate was allergic to dog hair. Rather than having to choose between the dog and the roommate, the inventor put his knowledge to work and developed a product that reduced the level of dog hair in their house, relieving the roommate’s discomfort.
I asked the inventor how he planned to market the product. He listed some traditional advertising and marketing tactics. For example, it likely would be sold in pet supply stores. “Pet supply stores?” I asked. “Those are for people who already have dogs. It would seem you need to reach those who can’t have dogs because of their allergies”
I suggested he look into providing information on the product directly to allergists, or perhaps in journals read by allergists or through allergists’ conferences. Once they were familiar with the product, I said, if they treated children who couldn’t own dogs because of allergies, the doctors could provide information on the product to the parents. What a great story could be told, I said, if his product made it possible for a child, for the first time, to experience the love and companionship of a dog.
Just change your thinking
As these stories illustrate, public relations can benefit a small business, a health care professional or an individual inventor and entrepreneur. The purpose is to build a trusted reputation among influencers and key audiences. Developing a strong and positive reputation can lead to heightened attention, favorable public opinion and new customers.
A lot of people — especially those who are hiring someone to do their public relations for the first time — think that our business is just about positive press. Make no mistake: sometimes media relations (a classic public relations tactic) are necessary, and, increasingly, utilizing social media or other tactics is necessary.
But, first and foremost, public relations is about the ability to understand the wants, needs, desires and fears of others, and to take authentic action to help the client – in many cases, the business owner — overcome a challenge or take advantage of an opportunity. Sometimes that involves media relations, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s ultimately about building and maintaining trust.
Public relations, therefore doesn’t require a businessperson to think like a reporter, or a news commentator, or like someone who has a large following on social media.
It just requires you to think in a new and different way: to think like a psychologist.
Few industries offer as many opportunities for thought leadership – that is, becoming a go-to resource for insights, research and information on key topics and issues – than insurance and reinsurance.
This industry interacts with firms in all other industries. It helps companies respond to sudden and unforeseen challenges. And, insurers and reinsurers must be attuned to trends concerning economics, markets, the climate, society and many other disciplines.
A few large, established firms in this industry have built strong thought leadership reputations. Reinsurer Swiss Re, brokers Marsh, Guy Carpenter and Aon, and other global companies have large research staffs generating regular studies and reports.
It’s not just for Goliath, but for David as well
Is thought leadership in insurance and reinsurance, therefore, the sole purview of such industry giants? Not at all. In fact, it remains an often-overlooked activity of many firms who, whether due to size, precedent or other factors, have not included it in their marketing strategies.
That’s a missed opportunity. In today’s marketplace, customers are turning away from advertising and other traditional marketing. Instead, they’re looking for sources they can trust for guidance and insight on business. They’re looking for thought leaders – and if insurers and reinsurers don’t provide leadership in their industry, prospects will turn to sources who can provide it, whether banks, investment firms, consultants or others.
Although media relations and speaking platforms offer insurers and reinsurers effective thought leadership venues, such firms now can also utilize “content marketing” for their thought leadership, sending it directly to prospects via blogs and white papers and then promoting it via social media so that it appears in all of the right places online.
Six keys to insurance and reinsurance thought leadership
Still doubtful that thought leadership could be a meaningful part of your company’s marketing strategy? Here are six suggestions for approaching an insurance or reinsurance thought leadership program:
Think big – industry-wide, nationally, or even globally. Yes, marketing your company’s latest product or coverage innovation is essential, and it’s important to announce important personnel appointments. Thought leadership, however, requires thinking more broadly. How might the rise of “Big Data” affect your clients and the risks they face? If your clients are in medical liability, what do they need to be learning about health care reform? What are the implications of climate change for the industry? What are the possible impacts on a pandemic for insurers – not only life insurers, but property-casualty as well? The possibilities are endless.
Think outside the industry. Many objective informational resources are available in this industry – the Insurance Information Institute, the National Insurance Crime Bureau, the International Underwriting Association, the National Council on Compensation Insurance and others. Outside the industry, however, universities, think tanks, management consultants, government agencies and other entities also produce research and commentary on a universe of subjects, and can be a source of topics for your thought leadership pieces.
Listen to what people are talking about. This is an industry with a variety of events, conferences and regular “meet-ups” where conversations are plentiful and paramount. What current issues are on people’s minds? What topics concern them or what would they like to learn more about? There are many opportunities for such informal “sampling” of insurance and reinsurance executives for their ideas and possible thought leadership topics.
Talk with the marketplace, and measure it. More formal market research is also an important consideration, and can yield industry insights and data. Depending on the purpose and budget, this might involve precise, scientific market research, or other, newer alternatives – for example, a confidential survey via “Survey Monkey,” or quick polling through social media. These newer, less formal research tools can still provide useful snapshots of how executives view current industry issues.
Seek out the hidden experts – even in your own organization. It’s impossible to predict with certainty just where you might find topic experts. A friend of mine once worked for a life insurance company, and while having an informal conversation with a mid-level actuary he learned that the actuary, in addition to his job responsibilities, had been doing independent research on life expectancies in specific states. That research eventually became the basis for an annual report on the “healthiest states,” which attracted the coverage of ABC’s Nightline, USA Today and many other news outlets.
Think ahead. Ever since the ancient Greeks visited Delphi to get the Oracle’s latest predictions, people have continually asked: what does the future hold? This industry is in the business of anticipating the future and, in a sense, making “bets.” The large amounts of data collected by insurers and reinsurers, and the experts who evaluate it, can help provide forecasts of what will happen in the future, and what the industry needs to prepare for.
A successful insurance and reinsurance thought leadership strategy
Several years ago, I led communications for a reinsurance company – a significant operation, but much smaller than the industry’s global giants. We undertook a marketing program that, because of budget limitations, utilized minimal advertising and other “paid” media but instead emphasized “earned” media coverage through thought leadership.
At the beginning of the program, we didn’t even register with the marketplace in terms of awareness of our brand. But after a couple of years we revisited the benchmark research. Not only did the marketplace, as a result of the program, perceive our company in the way that we had hoped, but also our market awareness had increased dramatically – to a level that vied with that of the industry’s major global brands.
The success was due to thought leadership. With a strategic thought leadership program as part of your company’s marketing mix, you can help position your firm to compete effectively – even with those “global giants.”
We’re quickly approaching the end of the year, when businesses close out projects and assess their progress for 2013. As attention is turning to plans for 2014, many managers will evaluate their public relations, marketing and communications activities, and consider whether to seek the assistance of an outside firm, or, if the results have not been satisfactory, decide to look for a new agency.
Before becoming an independent consultant, I worked for more than 20 years on the “client side,” in corporations and, early in my career, in government. In a variety of situations, my colleagues and I would interview, evaluate and select public relations firms and counselors. Based on that experience, the following are some important factors to consider in your own deliberations:
(Although these tips are written in the context of evaluating public relations and communications firms – e.g., referring to “they” – the suggestions can also apply to evaluating sole practitioners.)
Are they strategic?
There’s probably no more overused word in business today than “strategic,” yet its true meaning is often overlooked; specifically, the ability to plan acourse of action to achieve a goal or objective. The responsibility of a public relations counsel is to chart a public relations strategy that will, in turn, support an organization’s business strategy.
The communications objectives, for example, might change opinions, increase awareness or establish an organization’s reputation. The key is to have a direction and an ultimate objective – and for that objective to enhance an organization’s overall success.
Too often, however, public relations firms and counselors tout their capabilities, and whether they can utilize the latest in communications tools or innovations. One firm or counselor may showcase their experience in social media; another, in video; or yet another in events that have attracted wide publicity.
A prospective PR firm must have the right capabilities, but it’s important for the client not to become enamored of the “latest shiny thing” in media and communications. Instead the client should ask the firm to demonstrate how it has developed strategies in the past, and applied its capabilities to achieve measurable objectives. If a firm is truly strategic, they’ll be able to answer those questions.
Do they understand your business?
This seems like such a basic requirement for outside counsel, but over the years I’ve been struck by how agencies – whether from public relations, marketing, advertising or other disciplines – don’t always take the time to get to know the business of a prospective client.
Certainly, this requires some perspective: you’re hiring someone for their talents and skills in public relations, not to understand every single aspect of your company or to manage your business overall. Still, I’ve been surprised when people from agencies working with my employer, when offering advice or ideas, demonstrated that they didn’t understand basic aspects of my business.
On the other hand, I can recall pleasant, enlightening – even exciting – experiences during interviews of prospective agencies, when their answers to our questions showed that they had taken the time not only to learn about our company, but to understood key challenges and issues we were facing. It’s in those moments that a prospective agency or counselor shows that it can offer new, helpful insights on how you can succeed in the future.
Do they offer a fresh perspective?
As noted above, along with the understanding of your business, an agency needs to offer fresh perspective on your public relations, marketing or communications programs. In fact, the best counselors can take their knowledge of your company, business and industry and apply it to help your company stand out from its competitors.
Please note: No consultant can bring a fresh perspective to a client’s program if the client is not willing to consider new ideas. In fact, no company or manager should even consider hiring an outside expert if the manager is not open to new perspectives. If you hire a public relations counsel and begin to feel like all you’re doing is giving orders, it might be time to question whether the counsel is really adding value. Likewise, a smart client should expect outside counsel to question old assumptions – diplomatically, to be sure, but to question them nonetheless.
Do they take the initiative?
There’s no “one size fits all” approach to compensating public relations counsel. It may involve payment according to an hourly fee, payment for a specific project or payment of a pre-agreed, monthly retainer.
One case involving compensation structures, however, actually taught me the value of a public relations counsel who takes the initiative. When I was given responsibility for the communications and public relations of a division of my company, I was assigned an agency that had a long-term relationship with the corporation. At first, the agency provided me with great support and counsel. But it experienced management changes, and I was assigned new people.
The compensation was based entirely on hourly fees. I seldom heard from the staff assigned to my account; then, when I called the agency with a simple question, I’d get my answer, but soon afterward get a bill for 15 minutes of counsel. This happened repeatedly – it’s what some might call “nickel and diming.”
I evaluated the relationship, and decided to seek a new agency. The firm we hired convinced me of the value of putting them on a retainer, and once that was signed the agency always took the initiative to contact me with ideas, advice and recommendations. They demonstrated that a valuable public relations counsel will be eager to learn about the client’s business, then “take the first step” to provide assistance and support
What is their reputation – professionally, and ethically?
Getting the answer to this question will involve talking with past clients of the firm, and with other corporate communications executives. When interviewing a firm, the client also can ask if the agency belongs to a professional organization, such as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) or the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), and if employees are required to adhere to the codes of ethical conduct prescribed by those and similar organizations.
A public relations firm’s responsibility is to help manage the reputation of the client. Before hiring a public relations agency, make sure the agency itself has established its own strong reputation, for integrity as well as expertise – among its clients, competitors and others in the marketplace.
What other factors do you consider important in evaluating a public relations firm?